When I was a teen and coming to terms with my sexuality, I wondered if my aunt, who’d never married, was queer. “How could you think that about her?” asked my Dad after I’d said aloud what I’d been thinking, “Aunt Gerry’s not like that! She’s a sweet, kind lady.”
Until recently, that’s how most of us thought about Eleanor Roosevelt. Why am I bringing up ER? Because in this #MeToo moment, will-it-ever-end Trump era, there’s nothing I’d like more than for Eleanor to stride onto the White House lawn. And not just ER. If we could go back to the future, I’d love to see Eleanor walking toward Air Force One with her lover and friend Lorena (Hick) Hickok. Roosevelt, a tireless crusader for human rights and the downtrodden, and Hickok, a gutsy newspaperwoman and bold butch dyke who wrote searing stories about the oppressed, would be giving Trump, Paul Ryan, Jeff Sessions and the gang a fiery run for their money.
Bestselling queer writer Amy Bloom in her engaging new novel “White Houses” has brought Roosevelt, Hickok and their relationship vividly back to life. “White Houses” is being developed to be a mini/limited TV series, deadline.com reports. Bloom, who was a National Book Award finalist for “Come to Me,” will adapt the book for the series. Katie Couric is slated to produce and Jane Anderson is set to direct.
In our historic imagination, Roosevelt has largely been seen as a kindly, sexless, hard-working, serious, hetero old aunt (though she and FDR did have six children). Until the 1990s, Hickok, who was in her day one of only a few female Associated Press reporters, was not only absent, but erased from our imaginings.
Author Sally Quinn told the story of ER and Hick in her non-fiction work “Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady.” Biographer Blanche Wiesen Cook wrote about ER and Hick’s relationship in her three-volume biography of Eleanor Roosevelt. Though, she didn’t say that their relationship was sexual, Cook described their relationship as being extremely close.
“For this friendship we really do have an extraordinary record: thousands and thousands of pages of a daily correspondence that begins in 1932 and ends with Eleanor Roosevelt’s death,” Cook said in an interview with The New York Times. “When Eleanor Roosevelt says ‘I can’t wait to lie down beside you and hold you in my arms,’ there’s no doubt that this is an ardent and important and very deep erotic relationship.”
Truth may, as it’s often said, be stranger than fiction. Yet, “White Houses,” an historical novel, is often more illuminating than the non-fiction that’s been written about Roosevelt and Hickok.
The most refreshing thing about “White Houses” is that it’s written in Hickok’s voice. Hick, who grew up in poverty, was abused by her father and sent to work as a maid at 13, provides a working-class perspective on Eleanor and the Depression. When Hickok reports on destitute people for AP and later for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration during the New Deal, she knew first hand what poverty was.
Hick and ER met in 1932 when she was covering Eleanor Roosevelt for AP. After they became lovers, Hick left AP to take the FERA job. Contrary to her saintly image, Roosevelt, Hickok discovered, could be imperious and fun loving in private. In Eleanor’s Buick, with no Secret Service, they laughed like teens on a Maine vacation. Hick speaks of ER’s “propriety” and of her own “brass knuckles.” Together, they loved each other and worked for justice.
“White Houses” is the love story for our time.
Kathi Wolfe, a writer and a poet, is a regular contributor to the Blade.